As director Rodrigo Garcia’s father lay dying, he found himself taking notes. In these, he recorded his most profound sentiments. He also recorded death’s processes and banalities: the conferences with grim-faced doctors, the pro forma small talk, the sharing of memories — meaningful, funny, off-color — that serve as a way for the living to grapple with the absence that looms.
“The moment of death and the moments around it are so incredibly simple, especially when a person is not in pain,” says the filmmaker, seated in his bright Santa Monica garden. “It is like a light going out extremely softly and it leaves you dumbfounded. And then you have to do bureaucracy. And then there are things that make you laugh — the family is still the family. And there you are, two hours later, talking about anything.”
To write a book about the death of your parents is to expose moments of intense intimacy and vulnerability. To do so when one of your parents is a globally famous Nobel laureate makes that task infinitely more daunting.
Garcia’s father was Colombian-born novelist Gabriel García Márquez, author of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the seismic 1967 novel that helped reshape Latin American literature and skyrocketed its author to fame. Known across the continent by the mononymic “Gabo,” his 2014 death in Mexico City, where he had lived for years, generated front-page headlines around the world.
Where to start to read — or rediscover — the work of Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez.
Last August, Rodrigo Garcia also lost his mother: the commanding Mercedes Barcha, who served as his father’s chief of staff, confidante and foil. Her death likewise drew international notice.
Throughout his parents’ final moments, Garcia jotted notes. Throughout, he was conflicted by the act of doing so. “It’s like, what are you doing? Are you really writing a book? Are you just trying to be famous?” he says he asked himself. “But it’s the answer I give in the book, which is: There is a compelling, irresistible force to put it down on paper.”
Garcia is an L.A.-based movie and television director who has often explored the complex internal lives of characters in films such as last year’s “Four Good Days,” starring Glenn Close and Mila Kunis as a mother-daughter team reckoning with substance abuse, and “Last Days in the Desert,” released in 2016, in which Jesus (played by Ewan McGregor) grapples with doubt and an all-powerful father.
Now the director can claim the title of author, too. His contemplative account of his parents’ demise, “A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes: A Son’s Memoir of Gabriel García Márquez and Mercedes Barcha,” will be published in English by HarperVia at the end of the month. On July 29, Garcia will join the Los Angeles Times Book Club and Times editor Steve Padilla to discuss the memoir.
For Garcia, the process of producing the book has been an emotional pendulum swing between hesitancy and resolve. “Just before it came out in Spanish [in May], I did get a major case of cold feet,” he says. “But the response from people who were friends of my parents was positive, so I have endeavored to just accept that.”
Anyone expecting a dishy tome on the world of Latin American letters should set that expectation aside.
“A Farewell” is neither a tell-all nor a set-the-record-straight type of narrative. Why did Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa punch García Márquez in the eye in 1976? Garcia has no idea and wasn’t compelled to investigate. “That happened when I was 15 and it’s such a difficult time,” he says. “When you’re a teen everything is embarrassing. ... It’s almost better not to know.”
Instead, this slender, 176-page memoir functions more as a moving meditation on the end of life and its aftermath, both physical and psychological.
His father’s death, seven years ago, had practically been an affair of state in Mexico — complete with public processions and tributes by presidents. “In some ways, it was exciting and moving to see how many people he could sway to come to him and stand for hours under the rain just to walk by,” Garcia says. “But it extends the crazy period of — not mourning, but that transitional period into mourning.”
His mother’s death was quieter, though trying. Barcha died of respiratory problems last August in Mexico City (she was a lifelong smoker), at a time in which COVID-19 seemed intent on harvesting life all around. Though she didn’t contract the disease, the pandemic nonetheless limited Garcia’s ability to see her. He witnessed the moments preceding and proceeding her death on a cracked smartphone screen. In her case, there would be no space to begin the process of mourning — no funeral, no family gathering.
If his father’s death had been momentous for its public nature, his mother’s was perhaps more so for the ways in which it put an end to the family unit as he knew it. Garcia describes his family as the “club of four” in conversation, a club that included him, his parents and his younger brother, Gonzalo García Barcha, who works as a graphic designer in Mexico. Last August, he says, the club of four came to an end.
“The death of the second parent,” he writes in the book, “is like looking through a telescope one night and no longer finding a planet that has always been there.”
In writing this memoir, Garcia was intent on creating something that wasn’t “too detached” or “too sentimental.” Nor was he aiming to be comprehensive.
Instead, he opted for concision. The director is an admirer of Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” about the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, as well as Jean-Dominique Bauby’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” a memoir written telegraphically — through the blink of his left eye — about being immobilized by a stroke. (Bauby died in 1997, two days after the publication of the book.)
“I love that conciseness, that density,” Garcia says of those works. “‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,’ the sheer determination to tell it. It’s a blink of an eye, letter by letter. ... It’s a great reminder of brevity and how powerful it can be.”
And though his first language is Spanish, Garcia chose to write his memoir in English, since it meant he wouldn’t be able to overthink what he wrote.
“I wanted to get it down quickly, without second-guessing,” he says. “I wrote it in these discrete, short chapters which were done for convenience, so that I could keep moving forward. Then I realized it was a good format.
“It’s pictures, a photo album.”
Director Rodrigo García is not a religious man, nor was his father, the Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez.
The snapshots Garcia produces are quite candid: a celebrated novelist, in his twilight, losing his grasp of language as his mind is enveloped in a fog of dementia; his taciturn wife, a woman without a college degree who nonetheless held her own in rooms stuffed with accomplished writers, demanding to take a puff from a cigarette even as she is hooked up to oxygen. In their final days, Garcia finds the flashes of the fierceness that made them incomparable.
Of course, this being García Márquez, his is a death that is not without its momentos marquesianos, as they say in Spanish — Marquez-style moments of magic and earthy humor. (To give them away here would be to spoil the book.)
Ultimately, “A Farewell” is a way for a son to do what the father is unable. “My father complained that one of the things he hated most about death,” writes Garcia, “was that it was the only aspect of his life he would not be able to write about.”
“Writers are kind of obsessed with death,” Garcia tells me, looking introspective. “That’s what takes you to writing, trying to encapsulate experience, trying to tell the beginning, the middle and the end.”
García Márquez’s story now has an end. It is tender and poignant and fitting.
Book Club: Join us
Filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia, author of “A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes” will be in conversation with Times editor Steve Padilla at the Los Angeles Times Book Club.
When: July 29 at 6 p.m. PT
Where: Free livestreaming event on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Sign up on Eventbrite.
More info: latimes.com/bookclub